UPDATED: William Bicknell Encourages Public Health Practitioners

May 3, 2012

Watch this video on YouTube

With a combination of jokes, poignant stories and encouragement to “make people hurt less,” William Bicknell regaled an overflow crowd with lessons learned from more than five decades in public health.

Bicknell, chair emeritus of the Department of International Health at BUSPH, has been on medical leave to battle a recurrence of cancer, a fight he acknowledged with a heartfelt thank you to a long list of people who influenced him over his storied career. High on that list were his current doctors at Boston Medical Center who administered a radiation treatment just hours before his lecture.

After about 30 minutes after his talk ended, Bicknell rode his Segway through the halls of the Medical Building, across the Talbot Green and into the Talbot Building for a packed reception in his honor.

Bicknell, a Newton, Mass. native who came to BU in 1978, showed photos of his early days in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia where he set up a functioning field hospital in a simple thatched-roof hut.

In his talk, he explained that he spent about half of his career working to further public health in the United States and half overseas – a proportion that he quipped “felt just right.” He is best known at BUSPH for being a central figure in the creation of the Department of International Health, and founder the Center of International Health.

He warned the audience that while medical doctors can make mistakes that can lead to the deaths of handfuls of patients, public health practitioners can “make mistakes that kill even more people and with less accountability.”

It was just one of the cautionary notes Bicknell struck during the presentation, which also chided the arrogance of well-meaning public health practitioners who fail to listen. The simple act of listening with an open mind was one of the recurring themes of the lecture, the entirety of which will be available on video in coming weeks.


Originally published in the BUSPH’s The Insider.